LONDON — The leader of Britain’s Labour party Jeremy Corbyn has come under heavy fire after admitting that he defended a 2012 anti-Semitic mural in London’s East End.
Furious Labour MPs attacked Corbyn, with a number reportedly demanding that he appear before the weekly meeting of the party’s parliamentary group Monday.
Saturday night Angela Smith, the Labour MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge and a member of the committee which represents backbench MPs, launched a scathing assault on Corbyn.
“It is horrifying that anyone in our party – never mind the leader – should be able to condone anti-Semitism without facing consequences,” she told The Observer newspaper.
“And rather than facing up, Jeremy Corbyn has chosen to dissemble to defend himself. It is simply not credible to suggest that a man with his knowledge of foreign affairs did not recognize those images for what they were.
“Many of us would call for a formal disciplinary process, but the sad truth is that our party has been so badly undermined that no one would believe it would be meaningful. Jeremy Corbyn needs to appear before MPs on Monday to address this crisis.”
Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, said he will ask for a House of Commons debate on anti-Semitism and challenged the Labour leader to defend himself.
Enough is enough @jeremycorbyn. I’m going to ask for a debate in Parliament on anti-semitism in coming weeks. I challenge you to turn up and personally speak for the Opposition. Your opportunity to explain why you defend the world’s oldest hatred https://t.co/3heIruVBo6
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid) March 23, 2018
“Enough is enough,” he wrote, saying this would be Corbyn’s “opportunity to explain why you defend the world’s oldest hatred.”
The row came at the end of a week in which Labour faced a series of fresh controversies over anti-Semitism in the party.
The mural, named Freedom of Humanity, was painted onto a property near Brick Lane in the East End by the Los Angeles-based graffiti artist Kalen Ockerman in 2012.
It depicted a group of men – seemingly caricatures of Jewish bankers and businessmen – counting their money on a Monopoly board which is balanced on the back of naked workers.
The local authority swiftly signaled its intention to remove the mural following a series of complaints.
Responding to a Facebook post by Ockerman saying that the mural was going to be removed, Corbyn wrote: “Why? You are in good company. Rockerfeller destroyed Diego Viera’s mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.”
Corbyn was referring to the removal of a work by Mexican artist Diego Rivera from New York’s Rockefeller Centre in 1934.
Ockerman, whose work appears under the name of Mear One, denied the work was anti-Semitic. In 2015, he wrote of the controversy: “Some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc as the demons they are.”
@lucianaberger @jeremycorbyn This mural is about class, not race, and labeling it as anti-Semitic is a divisive, self-interested political tactic used to shut down forward-thinking conversation and bog us down with old-world rhetoric. pic.twitter.com/osR8mELo72
— MEAR ONE (@mearone) March 23, 2018
Corbyn’s intervention was first reported by the Jewish Chronicle in 2015. At the time, the newly elected Labour leader offered no response to the paper’s story.
However, the row was reignited on Friday when Luciana Berger, a senior Jewish Labour MP and former member of the Shadow Cabinet, publicly asked Corbyn for an explanation.
In response, the Labour party issued a statement suggesting Corbyn’s defence of the mural had been motivated by his support for free speech.
“In 2012, Jeremy was responding to concerns about the removal of public art on the grounds of freedom of speech,” it said.
The statement recognized, however, that the mural was “offensive, used anti-Semitic imagery, which has no place in our society, and it is right that it was removed.”
The response from the Spokesperson is wholly inadequate. It fails to understand on any level the hurt and anguish felt about Antisemitism. I will be raising this further.
— Luciana Berger (@lucianaberger) March 23, 2018
Berger branded the response “wholly inadequate.” “It fails to understand on any level the hurt and anguish felt about anti-Semitism,” she wrote.
The Labour MP was backed by a number of her parliamentary colleagues.
Harriet Harman, the party’s former deputy leader, suggested, “This sort of thing is insidious and dangerous.”
— Harriet Harman (@HarrietHarman) March 23, 2018
Yvette Cooper, a Cabinet minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who stood against Corbyn in the 2015 leadership contest, said she was “really troubled by the mural, the comments and the way this was handled today.”
Corbyn was also attacked by Labour Friends of Israel, which said his comments in 2012 were “utterly repugnant,” and by the Jewish Labour Movement.
Please see below LFI comment regarding Jeremy Corbyn defending an antisemitic mural: pic.twitter.com/kvgBnAFQlT
— LFI (@_LFI) March 23, 2018
Amid mounting controversy, a second statement was rushed out in Corbyn’s name.
The Labour leader said he had been making “a general comment about the removal of public art on grounds of freedom of speech,” before conceding that the case was “in no way comparable” to that of Diego Rivera.
In a highly unusual move, Corbyn – who has doggedly and angrily refused to give any ground during previous controversies over his record on anti-Semitism – expressed some remorse.
New: Corbyn statement on anti Semitic mural. pic.twitter.com/ElB0KAMbMK
— Paul Waugh (@paulwaugh) March 23, 2018
“I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic. I wholeheartedly support its removal,” he said. “The defense of free speech cannot be used as a justification for the promotion of anti-Semitism in any form. That is a view I’ve always held.”
His comments, however, do not appear to have quelled the controversy.
Berger said last night: “I want to hear from the leader on Monday, because his two responses so far have been wholly inadequate.”
Wes Streeting, the Labour MP for Ilford North and a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, told the Jewish News, “There is no reasonable or plausible explanation for this anti-Semitic artwork. It cannot be justified.
“A number of Labour MPs, including myself, have raised concerns with the Leader’s Office. To say that the initial response from the spokesperson – and the subsequent explanation from Jeremy Corbyn – are both insufficient would be an understatement, but it does reflect the careless and hopeless attitude towards tackling anti-Semitism that we’ve consistently seen from the top of the party.”
“This is an appalling anti-Semitic image and I can’t understand why anyone would have defended it. Jeremy would never have defended a racist image aimed at any other group, but his statement does not even include an apology.”
Speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Chuka Umunna, a fellow Labour MP, said the party’s handling of anti-Semitism “has been shameful,” while Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, pointedly asked, “If against all forms of racism, why does Mr. Corbyn’s stance on anti-Semitism always fall short?”
The Campaign Against Anti-Semitism said it has filed a complaint against Corbyn with Labour’s National Executive Committee. It charges him with bringing the party into disrepute.
— H.E.T. (@HolocaustUK) March 24, 2018
Corbyn has also been accused of attempting to distract attention from the controversy by sacking one of his Shadow Cabinet late on Friday night. Owen Smith, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, was fired by Corbyn in a row over the party’s stance on Brexit.
However, one former Labour minister told The Sunday Times, “This is a classic case of throwing a dead cat on the table to make everyone look elsewhere.”
Other critics were even harsher. In a fierce attack, Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, wrote, “Mr. Corbyn is a liar.”
“Mr Corbyn saw the image. He went out of his way to comment on it on Facebook. He knew what the mural depicted; it is not possible not to see that after even a moment’s glance. The Jewish caricatures were the entire point of the mural,” he argued.
Pollard said Corbyn’s explanation echoed the defense he deployed when it was revealed two weeks ago that he was an active member of a Facebook group which contained Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites.
At the time, Corbyn said he had not seen any anti-Semitism on the site. “Had I seen it, of course, I would have challenged it straight away, but I actually don’t spend all my time reading social media,” he told reporters.
The oldest hate repeatedly rears its head
Labour has spent the week embroiled in a series of rows surrounding anti-Semitism.
On Thursday, Corbyn was reported to have been a member of a second secret Facebook group in which anti-Semitic posts were shared.
However, the Labour leader appears not to have posted in the History of Palestine group, where comments about “Jewish organ trafficking” in Syria and “the Rothschild Empire” were posted.
Also on Thursday, the party suspended a local election candidate accused of posting anti-Semitic material on social media.
Alan Bull, who was standing in Peterborough, a city in the East of England, in May’s municipal elections, linked to articles which described the Holocaust as a “hoax” and appeared to suggest Israel and Islamic State were working together.
Questions were raised by local media in February, with the Labour party accused by some of failing to act decisively until the story received national attention this week.
Jennifer Gerber, director of Labour Friends of Israel, said Bull’s suspension was “long overdue.”
“If Labour is to take anti-Semitism seriously, it must act immediately, not just after a damaging news story,” she said.
Bull said the social media posts had been “doctored,” the Peterborough Telegraph reported.
Accusations of anti-Semitism on the part of Corbyn’s supporters also surfaced in the London borough of Haringey, where a number of moderate Labour councillors have been forced out of office by the hard-left Momentum group.
Joe Goldberg, a senior Jewish Labour councillor in the borough, told the Sunday Times it had become “impossible to operate as a Jewish councillor in the Haringey party without having your views and actions prejudged or dismissed in terms that relate to your ethnicity.”
Goldberg said that he had been accused by a fellow Labour councillor of “bagel-barrel politics,” while a Momentum activist Tweeted: “At least [you] will have more time to count your money.”
“This is not just on social media. Many [Labour] members have repeated to me assertions about Jews having big noses, controlling the media and being wealthy,” he said.
In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle published on Friday, Natan Doron, who is also standing down as a Labour councillor in Haringey, said the party had become “toxic,” with the “relentless” abuse making it “impossible” for him to continue.
Doron, who was born in Israel but educated in the UK, said local members had become “obsessed” with the Jewish state. They “didn’t care,” he said, when he repeatedly told them that comparisons between Israel and the Nazis were offensive.
The hard left’s anger in Haringey appears to have been stoked last summer when Labour councillors supported the local authority adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
As local election campaigning commences – the first major test of public opinion since last year’s snap general election – Theresa May attacked Corbyn on Wednesday over the party’s handling of anti-Semitism during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions.
“The message is clear: if you believe in good local services, want to see more homes built and want to tackle anti-Semitism, there is no place for you in the Labour party,” May said.
However, Corbyn’s closest political allies appear undisturbed by the controversies swirling around party.
Last weekend, Chris Williamson, a former member of the Shadow Cabinet and strong supporter of Corbyn, appeared at an event organised by Momentum alongside Jackie Walker, who is suspended from the party over allegations of anti-Semitism.
Williamson said he would be “absolutely delighted” if Walker was allowed to rejoin Labour, and also called for the controversial former London mayor, Ken Livingstone, to be allowed back into the party.
“We’ve got these ridiculous suspensions and expulsions from the party… in the most grotesque and unfair way. Jackie is one, and Ken Livingstone is yet another,” he argued.
The Board of Deputies called for Williamson – who last year said claims of anti-Semitism in the party were a “dirty lowdown trick” being used for “political ends” – to be disciplined and have the Labour whip removed.
Many moderates fear that Corbyn and his backers now have an unshakeable grip on Labour.
This week, the National Executive Committee picked Jennie Formby, a former official of the pro-Corbyn Unite union, as Labour’s new general secretary. Formby’s arrival saw the resignation of a string of senior figures at the party’s London headquarters.
Days before taking up the post, Formby was accused of playing a role in giving work to someone who had previously been suspended by Labour for anti-Semitism.
Formby was a line manager at Unite for Vicki Kirby, who had posted comments on Twitter in which she claimed Jews have “big noses” and “slaughter the oppressed,” and called Adolf Hitler a “Zionist God.”
Unite said the allegations against Formby were “a smear.”
Robert Philpot is the former editor of an independent centrist Labour magazine, Progress, and is now a contributing editor to it. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.